Work and Family in the Rush Hour of Life
The term ‘rush hour of life’ refers to the phase between the ages of 25 and 45 in which life’s major tasks are concentrated – starting a family, building a career and, increasingly, also caring for one’s parents. At an event on May 18th, organised by the Nordic Embassies in Germany, Population Europe and the Herbert Quandt-Foundation, researchers, experts and politicians from six different countries focused on disparities in family policies in the Nordic countries and in Germany.
Are the Nordic Countries exemplary?
When it comes to equality and gender issues, the Nordic countries are considered exemplary. For example, parental leave for both partners is customary. How, then, does the work-life balance function in practice? And which differences are there between the Nordic countries? What policy measures have proved effective and what could be done to slow down the ‘rush hour of life’? Those and related questions were discussed at the event.
Päivi Luostsrinen, Ambassador of Finland to Germany, and Andreas Edel, Executive Secretary of Population Europe, opened the event. Päivi Luostsrinen made clear that she was sure that “despite our different models, we have a lot to learn from each other”, while Andreas Edel said: “What parents try to achieve these days, does not sound like “rush hour”, but more like “mission impossible”. For him, gender-related quotas can only be part of the solution to addressing gender imbalances.
Germany vs. Nordic Countries
The following presentation by Prof. Michaela Kreyenfeld (MPIDR, Hertie School of Governance) introduced the topic of “Social Inequality and Family Dynamics in Germany”. Kreyenfeld also considered the question of childlessness in Germany. According to her research, educational differences in childlessness have narrowed.
However, in reality, gender equality is still lacking in the labour market, especially when it comes to maternal employment. Mothers with small children in Germany still mostly work part-time, or are marginally employed. “It’s only the highly educated who work full-time”, Kreyenfeld said. Consequently, men are the ones mainly working full-time, even when they have a small child, and the share of fathers who are taking paternal leave is still very low.
Prof. Anne Lise Ellingsæter (University of Oslo) gave an overview on the development of work and family in the Nordic Countries. “The Nordic countries have this attractive combination of high employment and fertility rates”, she said. How did they get there?
She explained, that in the mid-2000s there was an expansion in childcare in all Nordic countries, and in the following years the usage of childcare increased. But it has not only been a structural change but also a change of minds: “There has been an increase in parents seeing childcare services as the best care for children.”
Simultaneously, gender and class differences were reduced. Interestingly, parallel to childcare investments, there were also cash-for-care incentives in almost every Nordic country. This is comparable to the German “Elterngeld”, which has been criticised since its implementation.
As a result, the Nordic fertility rates have been stable for decades, there are only small differences between countries, and there are “almost no educational differences”, Ellingsæter said.
The presentations were followed by a lively discussion, mainly focusing on gender equality, moderated bySigrun Matthiesen, journalist from Berlin.
Concerning gender equality and parents at work, Jouni Eho, CEO at Oxford Research and also Finnish Father of the Year 2014, said: “It has a lot to do with cultural leadership. Ideally you don’t need to turn that off; you are a father when you are at work.”
Kristina Jullum Hagen from the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, Oslo, agreed: “In Norway as well, being a parent is just combinable with working.” She also said she was sure that the “daddy quota”, which was introduced in Norway in 1993 has had a massive impact: “Nowadays, it is expected of fathers to take long leaves” and it is uncommon to find a Norwegian business that assumes their employees will always remain childless.
For Kenneth Reinicke, Associate Professor at Roskilde University, Denmark, a big question is about the “re-definition of masculinity”. He said: “Many believe that gender equality is about power men have to give over to women, but that’s a trap. The truth is that men are paying a high price for their masculinity.” The important questions for him are: Why are men still expected to give priority to their career? And how do you, instead, manage to combine the two?
Concerning the situation of fathers in Iceland, Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, Director, Centre for Gender Equality, Akureyri, said: “At some point, 90% of fathers took the leave. The result was: This development is strengthening the relationships of fathers and children.”
Annette Widmann-Mauz, Parliamentary State Secretary, German Federal Ministry of Health, Berlin, agreed: "Demographic development shows we need working fathers AND mothers in Germany", but, “Germans are still used to the economy dominating their rhythm of life, not the private life."
Sara Lomberg, Swedish Journalist for “Chef”, Stockholm, also admitted that not all is golden in the Nordic Countires: “The differences, especially in terms of the payment are still very big. There is a huge pay gap between working mothers and fathers in Sweden.”
Kristin Åstgeirsdóttir agreed for Iceland: “Fathers earn more than working mothers, the labour market is still gender segregated.”
Jouni Eho summed up the Nordic Way: “Equality is all about appreciating diversity.”
Following the last question, in which the panellists were asked to sum up his or her idea of “the most gender equal planet”, the panellist and speakers were given the opportunity to talk with guests and to continue the discussion during the reception.